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Community college makeover

Budget cuts threaten the ideal of open access to higher education. Drastic changes are in order.

January 08, 2012
  • Budget cuts at California's community colleges have drastically reduced course offerings, making it extremely difficult for students to reach their educational goals. Above, the admissions and records office of Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo is shown.
Budget cuts at California's community colleges have drastically… (Los Angeles Times )

Until a few years ago, just about any Californian could attend a community college, and many did. The colleges offered a wide variety of options: They conferred two-year associate's degrees; prepared students for junior-year transfer to a four-year college; provided vocational training and certification; offered remedial courses for high school grads who lacked college skills; taught English to immigrants and enrichment courses to the elderly; offered recreational classes; provided college-level education — and credits — for ambitious high school students; and were the leading source of lifelong learning and career retraining for the state's adults.

But at this point, open access to higher education in California is more theoretical than real. Budget cuts have drastically reduced course offerings, making it extremely difficult for students to reach their educational goals. In 2009-10, nearly 140,000 entering students couldn't get into any classes because they had low priority in the registration system. Large numbers of students who are already attending community college are routinely shut out of courses they need to graduate or transfer. At the same time, other students meander through courses year after year, racking up far more credits than they need and taking up seats in classrooms. Many eventually drop out or never move out of the system at all. People who take courses for personal enrichment similarly fill classes that are needed by those aiming for degrees or specific training.

Bravo to the many Californians who value and seek out some form of higher education. But with the state no longer able to provide for all of them, a state task force is calling for sweeping changes. Some of the recommendations would use public dollars more efficiently while providing students fairer access. Others go too far, threatening to turn the colleges into certificate-production machines rather than true institutions of higher learning.

Make no mistake: Even if only the best of these proposals were adopted, the community colleges would be transformed in ways that would make them nearly unrecognizable to Californians who cherish the old something-for-everyone system. Top priority for course registration would go to students with a specific goal: a degree, transfer, career training or remedial help. Instead of registering online without guidance, most new students would have to attend mandatory orientation and counseling sessions to help them understand which classes they need to move through the system fluidly.

But once these students have 100 credits — which translates to 25 to 30 courses, well over the 60 to 70 credits needed for a degree or transfer to a four-year school — they would move to the bottom of the list for registration. Also given low priority would be people signing up for classes for personal enrichment and recreation. (One weakness in the plan: These people could easily game the system by indicating that their reason for taking a class is to retrain for a new career rather than enrichment.) Financially needy students who attend the colleges for free under fee waivers would have to start paying fees after earning 100 credits. Non-credit courses that have been free for senior citizens and low-cost recreational classes would largely disappear unless the colleges charged enough to make the classes self-sustaining.

These restrictions aren't something to celebrate. Ideally, community colleges could continue providing affordable, lifelong education for all Californians, but that's not realistic at the moment. It's fair and sensible to give lower priority in registration to students who have already taken more than their share of classes over the years, in order to provide seats to those who haven't had a chance. More painful, but still necessary, is reducing access for senior citizens and other adults. No one likes the idea of rationing education, but the reality is that access already is being rationed — in unfair ways that harm entering students. This rationing would make the colleges more efficient, though only if they made good on the promise of orientation and counseling, so that students weren't aimlessly taking courses and never finding themselves eligible to graduate. And that would call for funding the colleges don't have right now.

Less helpful is the task force's relentless focus on moving students through the system as quickly as possible. It has outlined a community college experience that could be unfair to part-time students and that would have the unintended consequence of making college a less enriching experience. All students would be required to articulate a goal by the end of the first year of college, and a full educational plan by the end of the third semester. In addition, the state would target its funding of the colleges to discourage them from offering courses that aren't showing up in those educational plans.

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